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The <em>Why</em> Behind Becoming Better People

Becoming Better as a New National Narrative

Deep down I’ve always been an optimist. Despite plenty of reasons to focus on the negative, the gradual trajectory toward “better” in my world was expected. Like most Americans, I come from immigrant roots that slowly but surely crept from “survivable” toward a “better life”, one generation at a time. Whatever hardships hit the various families in my tree, they found a way to march onward. And I know I’m one of the lucky ones, because this trajectory isn’t true for everyone. Some family hardship stories cannot defy their gravity, and that needs to change.

Viewed through a national lens, this country has seen hard times since its inception. Even in my lifetime we’ve gone in and out of war – Vietnam, the Cold War, the Persian Gulf war, and the geographically indeterminate “war against terror.” And everywhere on the planet, we’ve battled devastating diseases, disasters, famine, along with economic and ecological hardships, all of which we accept as the price of being human.

Yet through it all there’s also been a steady counter-beat of “it’ll be okay.” As a child of the 70s, I would hear this from the proverbial national PA system of CBS, NBC and ABC. These “bullhorns” would dole out the drama and bad news with one hand, while feeding us sitcoms and purchasable panaceas with the other. It was enough to keep our minds passively believing we were plodding ever so slightly toward a better future for us all.

What Changed?

But things shifted. Since the dawn of cable TV, that relatively manageable PA system of the 70s has continued to splinter. Add the Internet plus smartphones, and now we can’t even count the number of bullhorns that assault us.

Without a steady drumbeat to follow, we now scramble to find the voices that resonate, while shouting into the wind. The cacophony is deafening and disorienting, especially these past few years. Up is down; down is up. Truth seems optional, as words don’t necessarily align with reality.

And for anyone whose world of meaning was shaped by the streamlined narrative of those few steady bullhorns of the later 20th century, this is devastating. Especially so if friends and family members are captivated by an alternative narrative as they march to one of the loudest, most bullish horns in the PA system today.

Yes, I’m talking about the 2016 election and its ongoing polarization. Our national conversation presents as an endless litany of Us and Them. Whether it’s good or evil; win or lose; rich or poor; educated or ignorant. There are no greys or subtleties — only black and white. And if we set aside polar opposites, the conversation seeks out division wherever it can: creating a dividing line on the spectrum of skin tone, religious self-expression, or gender and sexuality.

Holding on to Hope

My optimist self didn’t know what to do with this extreme fracturing. Plenty of my friends didn’t know either. So we turned to activism. We dove in fully and put a ton of energy into the messy soup of polarizing problems. We discussed issues ad nauseam; we threw money at people and entities to fix problems; we spoke out against those whose actions we believed were most egregious. Whether it was pushing against, or pulling away from something, that pushing or pulling had a single end goal in mind: change. Change for the better.

Sometimes this activism felt good, even necessary. We saw it was making a difference. At other times it felt like constant energy out, with our pushing or pulling simply serving as an opposing force, keeping the problems stubbornly in place. But with my children’s generation at stake, doing nothing was not an option; it was a cop out. No one should surrender to a violent world devoid of opportunity, on a planet sucked dry of sustenance.

That may sound dark and desperate, but truth be told, it’s hard to ignore yet another string of fires or hurricanes; yet another school shooting; yet another tent on the sidewalk. Still, I had to rethink my long game with this “change for the better” thing, because I didn’t want my kids to grow up with a mom who seemed cloaked in desperation, often angry at the world.

So I took a step back. I listened; I read; I contemplated. How do we truly effect change? The answer I kept coming around to is this: We need to start with ourselves. We need to own our collective story. We shouldn’t settle for someone else’s bullhorn to tell the story. We — all of us — must take control of the narrative. But how…?

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